Saturday, January 5, 2013

Tarquin Hall: The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken: A Vish Puri Mystery

Since learning that we’d be coming to India to live, I’ve tried to read a great deal about this vast nation. The amount written about this country is immense, and given that I’m a promiscuous reader wanting to master several topics at once, I’ve only made a dent in learning what I can about India. Thus, while I have completed relatively few books, I have read a good deal or learned vicariously from IG and her reading. Amartya Sen, William Dalrymple, Shashi Thoroor, Andre Betielle, Richard Sorabji, Pankraj Mishra, Kathryn Boo (via IG), NYT articles, The Economist, and so on have served as very enlightening guides. I’ve made a dent, anyway. However, now I’ve made a breakthrough: I’ve completed The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall. 

Hall is a Brit, married to an Indian, and living near Delhi. His skill as a writer combines with his insider/outsider status to give me some delightful insights into India. In fact, I’d posit that the standard detective novel, the “who dun it?” may prove the perfect vehicle to learn about a new society or culture. In this case goes a long way in supporting that proposition. 

Vish Puri, a former Army intelligence officer turned private detective, with a caring (if occasionally bothersome) wife and meddling “mummy-ji”, assited by a stable of colorfully nick-named stable of helpers (labor is cheap in India), gets called into work on the death of a prominent Pakistani. The death involves two subjects of great emotional valance in India: cricket and Pakistan. The decedent is involved with cricket, the national game here, and (I think) in Pakistan as well. His investigation of the murder leads Puri to Pakistan, which, before these events, had simply been “the enemy” to Puri. But as Puri learns, the two nations share a great deal, including a troubling and sad history that still holds the memory of many wrongs on both sides of the border. Puri expands his horizons in the course of his investigation, while he’s also dodging or ignoring the dietary constraints that his wife wants him to follow. His nickname isn’t “Chubby” for nothing. 

This book caught my eye because the front cover displayed a favorable blurb from Alexander McCall Smith.  I discovered that Hall’s creation matches many of the attributes that makes Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie series so successful: an endearing main character--not a super-hero, hard-boiled type, or super-sleuth--but a wonderfully fallible character deeply immersed in the culture around  her. So for shear enjoyment while learning a great deal about this vast country, and with the highest compliment in comparing this book to one of McCall Smith’s books, I suggest you put this in your reading pile, whether you come to India or only want to explore from your armchair. I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed.